Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jane Eyre: Deliciously swooning melodrama

Jane Eyre (2011) • View trailer for Jane Eyre
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite stupidly, for dramatic intensity and a fleeting nude image
By Derrick Bang

Folks who love their romances brooding and gothic will adore director Cary Fukunaga's new take on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I haven't seen so much angst and despair — nor so many dismal moors and long-suffering stares — since Merle Oberon chased Laurence Olivier in 1939's Wuthering Heights.

That was sister Emily Bronte's novel, of course, but Charlotte certainly penned an equally memorable saga of tortured love.
Jane (Mia Wasikowska) can't help being attracted to Rochester (Michael
Fassbender), even though she knows the very thought of embarking in a
relationship with the man is impossible, given the divide of their social
stations. But what is love, if not an emotion determined to surmount any
potential obstacle?

I'm frankly surprised, at a time when Jane Austen's books have enjoyed such renewed popularity, that we've not sooner re-visited either or both of the Bronte sisters. To be sure, a typical Austen heroine has more dash and sharp-tongued wit than an average Bronte heroine, but the latter should not be dismissed as silent wallflowers. This new Jane Eyre offers plenty of spirited feminine pluck, thanks both to Mia Wasikowska's sensitive performance and Moira Buffini's impressively nuanced script. The book runs roughly 400 pages, and capturing all that depth in a two-hour film is no small accomplishment; Buffini — who also scripted the charming Tamara Drewe — does a fine job.

Then, too, Michael Fassbender's Edward Rochester just might get swooning female viewers to forget Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy, in 1995's Pride and Prejudice. Fassbender's tempestuous Rochester is a haunted soul for the ages.

Fukunaga's one irritating misstep is the decision to open his film at the story's first climax — the conclusion of the third of this saga's five major acts — and then reveal what came before through a series of lengthy flashbacks. This sort of structural conceit, if employed unnecessarily, bespeaks a director who fears that his audience demands a splashy first scene, in order to settle into the story. That's utter nonsense, particularly given the drama at hand as Bronte's book begins.

Then, too, Fukunaga compounds the error later on, by showing us those opening scenes again, when Buffini's screenplay catches up to them. What, did they think we had forgotten so quickly?

That pesky annoyance aside, we quickly settle into the unhappy tale of poor Jane, orphaned as a child and initially raised by her Aunt Sarah (the hissably waspish Sally Hawkins, who recently starred in Made in Dagenham), who despises the girl. As soon as decorum permits, Jane — a heartbreaking performance, at this early age, by Amelia Clarkson — is shipped off to the foreboding Lowood School for Girls.

Additionally, Aunt Sarah makes it clear that "it" — not "she" — will remain at Lowood during all holidays. Needless to say, this is the sort of institution where the staff appears to live quite well on the tuition fees, while the scores of young girls must make do with cold rooms, minimal clothing and meager meals.

We generally associate this sort of hard-luck orphan with Charles Dickens ... and, in truth, Oliver Twist didn't have it any harder.

We're not able to spend too much time with young Jane, although her telling relationship with best friend Helen (Freya Parks) stokes the sparks of pride, honor and stubborn resourcefulness that already exist within our heroine.

The years pass; Jane emerges from Lowood as an accomplished young woman with a flair for sketching, often from her imagination. She secures a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she's to tutor Adele (Romy Settbon Moore, simply adorable), a little French girl who's about the age Jane was, when she was banished from her aunt's home. Needless to say, Jane's care for Adele is loving, instructive and encouraging. Life at Thornfield is oddly idyllic, if isolated; the palatial estate is run by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), in the protracted absence of the manor's actual owner.

That would be Rochester, whose abrupt arrival one day leaves a lasting impression on Jane. Rochester is irritable, hot-tempered and obviously plagued by some Dark Secret; we wonder if it might have something to do with the ghostly woman said to inhabit the halls of Thornfield after dark. Fassbender successfully walks the fine line, managing to be seductively enchanting even as he's being cross. But despite his dark demeanor, Rochester has a kind heart and virtuous nature; he has made Adele his ward, we gradually learn, because she's the child of a former mistress ... who died, of course. (This film suggests that Rochester definitely is the little girl's father, whereas that's not necessarily true in Bronte's novel.)

Rochester is drawn to Jane's calmness and frank manner, and to her intelligence and accomplishments, notably her sketches; she's ever so much more interesting that his potential fiancée, the vacuous Blanche (Imogen Poots). Jane speaks her mind, for good or ill, whereas the likes of Blanche will always flirt and say what she believes a man wants to hear.

In Jane, Rochester sees an equal ... which is more than a little awkward, of course, because they're certainly not equals in the way that matters most in this mid-19th century setting: their social station. So while Jane cannot help being drawn to her employer — and Wasikowska plays this infatuation so marvelously well, so subtly and delicately — she also understands the impossibility of the situation.

As does the kindly Mrs. Fairfax, watching from the wings.

The melodramatic pot simmers, bubbles and boils over; matters take several unexpected turns. Additional characters play their parts, notably St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), a compassionate clergyman, and his two sisters, Diana and Mary (Holliday Granger and Tamzin Merchant).

Fukunaga made his name on these shores with 2009's Sin Nombre, a bleak drama of illegal South American immigrants trying to enter the United States, and the vicious street gangs that imperil their railway journey. That tale, too, centered around a brave and resourceful young woman, hopelessly drawn to a young man from a different world, so Fukunaga's attraction to Bronte seems quite reasonable. He understands the complex dynamic between a man and woman separated by far more than the basic gender divide: the frustration, forlorn glances and dashed hopes.

While not diminishing all the other elements of this tale well told, this film's juiciest scenes are those between Jane and Rochester, with Wasikowska and Fassbender continually probing, teasing, tormenting and testing each other. We're held transfixed on the sidelines, wondering how much closer they can get before making actual contact — wondering if even a shadow could slip between their almost parted lips — while knowing, in vexation, that nothing can come of such encounters. (Well ... we shall see.) The verbal duels make cunning foreplay, and in a different era, of course they'd tear each other's clothes off and fall into lustful embrace.

But this story draws its power from desire denied: There's a lot to be said for being reminded that patience and wistful anticipation exert a far stronger hold on our emotions, than the lesser satisfaction of a climax too quickly consumated. As Buffini's script moves past the fourth act and into the fifth, everything has gone wrong, and we can't help fearing the worst.

Dench, always a marvel, puts incredible depth into her performance; watch Mrs. Fairfax's worried glance, as she realizes what is happening between Jane and Rochester. Bell, recently seen in The Eagle, once again demonstrates his skill with a quiet character who eventually reveals hidden depths.

The location work is wonderfully austere and foreboding: both Thornfield — actually Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, a portion of which dates back to the 11th century (!) — and the surrounding countryside (also Derbyshire, where Bronte's novel actually is set). Cinematographer Adriano Goldman's panoramas are marvelously rich and painterly, each vista as compelling an image as Jane's many sketches.

All this film's riches notwithstanding, it'll be perceived as grindingly slow and dour by viewers accustomed to the faster pace and superficial rewards of modern storytelling. One must be willing to embrace the time, the mores, the mood and the style of this saga, which is impressively faithful to Bronte's novel. I generally require 40 or so pages before falling, once again, into the rhythm of a Dickens novel; Fukunaga's film certainly is more easily approachable, but only for those willing to be swept along by its angst-filled journey.

While also being captivated by Wasikowska and Fassbender, who absolutely own the screen.

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